Rulon Gardner

Rulon Gardner on returning to wrestling training, getting his gold medal back

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NEW YORK — Rulon Gardner said he’s lost a little weight, but there’s still plenty of work ahead. He’d like to live to 80 years old, start a family and get his Olympic gold medal back.

In 2000, Gardner pulled off one of the great upsets in Olympic history, dethroning chiseled Russian Aleksander Karelin in the Greco-Roman super heavyweight wrestling final. Karelin, the three-time defending Olympic champion, hadn’t lost in international competition in 13 years nor given up a point in six.

Gardner since lost the middle toe on his right foot due to frostbite after being stranded in a 2002 snowmobile accident in his native Wyoming. He lived through a motorcycle accident and plane crash.

He went on “The Biggest Loser” at 474 pounds and attempted to lose more than 200 pounds to make weight for the 2012 U.S. Olympic trials at age 40. He reportedly said he got down to 280, missing the Olympic heavyweight limit of 264.5 and gained about 100 pounds back by June 2014, according to the Deseret News.

Since the Olympic trials, Gardner filed for bankrupty and parted with his 2000 Olympic gold medal and 2004 Olympic bronze medal among many other possessions.

On Thursday, Gardner dressed in a suit and tie to cover USA Wrestling’s “Beat the Streets” against Cuba in Times Square for NBCSN. He was stopped for autographs and pictures, unmistakable for he looked bigger than any of the wrestlers competing.

Gardner spoke with OlympicTalk before the meet:

OlympicTalk: You said during the winter you were doing wrestling training again to get back in shape and, last summer, that you would possibly go for the 2016 Olympic trials. How’s that going?

Gardner: I’m still going with, actually, a real good coach from Central High School in Cheyenne, Wyoming, a guy named Drew Severen [the school’s football coach]. I’ve been working out with him, training with him, kind of day-in, day-out, when I have time.

OlympicTalk: How many hours per day?

Gardner: I’m about an hour and a half. If I’m going to try to get back into healthy shape, wrestling shape, you’ve got to spend a good probably three to five hours a day in the wrestling room. Getting that time is hard to do, but if you’re going to get in shape and be a good wrestler, you’ve got to put the time in. Being an Olympic champion, I know I weigh too much now. I’ve got to get healthier and get my weight down.

OlympicTalk: What inspired you to return to wrestling training?

Gardner: I’m 43 years old now, and if I’m going to live to, hopefully, be 80 years old, I’ve got to get healthy. My wife [who has experience as a fitness and weight-loss instructor], she inspired me to work hard and get my weight down. We want to have a family. So, ultimately, for me to be around, and to stay on this earth for long enough, to have a family, I’ve got to get my weight down. So those are probably the biggest inspirations. But then ultimately, to be looked upon by youth wrestlers and that kind of stuff. I need to be a good ambassador of the sport. You’ve got to look the part of a wrestler, and you’ve got to act the part.

OlympicTalk: How realistic is it that you can make it to the Olympic trials?

Gardner: I just took a new position at my job. It’s still a thought out there. I don’t know how realistic it is at this point. At some point, you’ve got to take your career and run with it. If I don’t get on the mat to compete to win, I want to get on the mat to be healthy. At the end of the day, winning the Olympics is something that’s not even in my ideals. But to be healthy enough to make weight for the Olympics is really what I’m after most of all. If I ever did get [my weight] down, and I was able to spend the time and do it, I’d love to go to the Olympic trials. I don’t know if I’d be able to compete and win them, but I’d like to be able to at least be healthy enough to get there.

OlympicTalk: Have you lost weight? What do you weigh now?

Gardner: I’ve lost a little bit of weight, but most of my focus has been with my work. I’m a medical device rep, so I’m in the OR. I’m helping doctors. In a day, I’ll have like four or five surgeries. So you’re getting up at 4 a.m., doing cases all day and then coming back at night, you’re missing wrestling practice. You’ve got to have that discipline. Winter time, being in Wyoming, you don’t ever want to go outside for a run. Summer time, it’s always easier to get out and exercise, and I love being outside. I’ve started doing more of that, more of the running and the jogging. I’ve just got to be healthier and more active.

OlympicTalk: When was the last time you saw or spoke to Karelin?

Gardner: In Beijing [at the 2008 Olympics]. He actually was right in front of me for the whole 20 days of the Olympics [both doing TV work]. So I saw him every day. Just the intimidation factor of him walking in. We did an interview, and it was classic because even though he’s from Russia, he’s so smart, he’s so eloquent in everything he does. He speaks six languages. He was joking with us.

OlympicTalk: Jordan Burroughs is trying to repeat as Olympic champion with strong domestic competition, similar to what you went through in 2004. What do you think of him?

Gardner: I think he’s doing the right thing. He’s looking forward. He’s not looking back. Because once you start looking to see who’s biting at your heels, you start slowing down your acceleration. That’s the one thing about Jordan. I don’t think he’s ever taken the foot off the accelerator.

OlympicTalk: Do you still have your amputated toe?

Gardner: I actually have it in a bottle of formaldehyde. I have that in my refrigerator. People kind of get disgusted. They’re like, why do you have it? You know what, it’s a great reminder of me being irresponsible and foolish and stupid because I made a mistake. I didn’t have my correct gear. I wasn’t prepared to be in the mountains. When I look about being stupid and making bad decisions, I look at my toe, and it reminds me.

OlympicTalk: Are you trying to get your gold medal back?

Gardner: It was actually saved by an individual who actually had helped me out when I was on “The Biggest Loser.” He still has it. If I get another $20,000, I’ll have my gold medal back.

OlympicTalk: How much do you want it?

Gardner: I’m not complete without it. Everybody’s like, oh, the gold medal, it’s his only thing that matters. I have a lot of things that matter to me. I don’t have my Olympic rings and stuff. They sold those, but I don’t care about that stuff. The gold medal, that’s something that was really special to me because of who I beat.

OlympicTalk: You’ve given speeches to schools and kids. What’s the overall message?

Gardner: I talk about seven steps that I utilized in my life to overcome obstacles. I had a learning disability. I wasn’t supposed to go to college. I wasn’t supposed to go and graduate [he did, from Nebraska]. I wasn’t even supposed to go to the Olympics. I finally made the Olympic team in 2000, won the gold medal and accomplished that goal. I’ve continued to learn and gone through adversity. What do you do? You get back up. You have a bad test. You lose an athletic event. These young athletes, you get knocked down. What do you do? You get back up. Life is about obstacles and opportunity. For me, I looked at the match with Karelin as being an opportunity to reach my pinnacle. Some people might have thought about it as an obstacle for success. I thought it was an opportunity, turned it into a positive, won the match and won the Olympics. That’s all about how you perceive life. A lot of kids don’t believe in themselves. That’s the worst thing you can ever do.

Photos: U.S.-Cuba wrestling in Times Square

Trayvon Bromell emerged from destruction a new sprinter, new man

Trayvon Bromell
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For Trayvon Bromell, July 4 was an independence day. His first race as a rebuilt sprinter, more than four years after he first felt discomfort in his left heel.

It was also much more than that. Bromell, whose training base is Jacksonville, Fla., arrived in Montverde, off Lake Apopka just west of Orlando, for a meet called the Showdown in O-Town.

Exactly four years earlier, Bromell celebrated qualifying for his first Olympics at age 20.

Three years after that, 364 days before the Showdown, Bromell left that Montverde track and had his coach believing he might quit sprinting.

Finally, 10 days before last month’s comeback meet, Bromell learned that the woman who taught him to be a sprinter, from age 4 through high school, had died.

That coach, Garlynn Boyd, was supposed to be in Montverde on July 4 to watch Bromell.

The time came for heat five of the 100m. Bromell leaned into the starting blocks of lane two on a wet track. He felt the weight of the last few years. He sensed his arms shaking.

After at least one false start, Bromell ran. He won the heat in 10.04 seconds.

Bromell’s personal best is 9.84, but that he approached the 10-second barrier, which separates fast sprinters from medal-contending ones, after what he endured the last four years was very promising.

Bromell found his mom, Shri Sanders. She raised him, his two brothers and his sister, by herself in St. Petersburg. She prayed over him after the victory.

He raced again three weeks later. He ran 9.90 seconds, which would have earned bronze at the most recent Olympics and world championships.

Bromell’s speed was back, but in interviews he’s reflected more on a recent personal transformation. Aside from sprinting, Bromell said on a Flotrack podcast that he crawled out of “the destruction of my past,” “the downfall of my career” and “a real dark alleyway” in this Olympic cycle.

In an interview last week, Bromell declined to discuss specifics.

“I’ve got something coming out in the near future that’s going to speak and answer all the questions that people want to know,” he said, noting that it’s mostly related to mental health.

By 2013, the track world began to learn about Bromell, a 5-foot-8 inch high schooler who sprinted in shorts, not tights, and a headband.

He broke his left knee in eighth grade doing backflips, broke his right knee and forearm in ninth grade playing basketball and in 10th grade cracked a hip during a race.

Through all of that, he was coached by Boyd of the Lightning Bolt Track Club. Boyd began teaching Bromell how to be a sprinter before he started elementary school.

“We come from a bad area where poverty is big, and we didn’t really have a lot,” Bromell said of his family. “[My mom] worked all the time to make sure I was good, to make sure we had somewhere to live. When I went to practice, coach G was like another mom, to everyone, to every kid in the city who came in connection with us. She loved us. With my injuries in high school, my mom and coach G were the only people who believed I was special, even in times when I didn’t feel I was special.”

She fought diabetes for years — both of her legs were amputated — but Bromell didn’t know for sure her cause of death. St. Petersburg Times obituary reported she contracted the coronavirus before she died at age 54.

“I don’t even have the words to explain this pain I’m feeling,” was posted on Bromell’s Instagram the day of her death. “God knows that with everything in me, the world will know the lives you help change!”

In 12th grade, he became the first U.S. high schooler to break 10 seconds over 100m (albeit with too much wind for record purposes). Matthew Boling later broke Bromell’s record by .02.

Bromell, also a slot receiver at Gibbs High, passed on football interest from schools including West Virginia. He took a track scholarship at Baylor, known for producing Olympic 400m champions Michael Johnson and Jeremy Wariner.

“I don’t really like to put a kid in a box and say we expect this or that,” legendary Baylor coach Clyde Hart said in 2014. “I think he’s going to get better. He’s going to get a lot stronger. In my opinion, most sprinters don’t get their prime until 24, 25 years old. He’s only 18.”

As a freshman, Bromell won the NCAA 100m title in 9.97 seconds, becoming the first teenager to break 10 seconds with legal wind (and still the only one to do so). As a sophomore, Bromell clocked 9.84, a time faster than anything Carl Lewis ever recorded. It ranked him fourth on the U.S. all-time list.

Later that summer, Bromell shared 100m bronze with Canadian Andre De Grasse at the world championships, behind Usain Bolt and Justin Gatlin, becoming the second-youngest medalist in that event’s history. He turned professional, signing a contract with New Balance, which he said is still in place today.

In March 2016, Bromell won the world indoor 60m title (Bolt, Gatlin and De Grasse were absent). His coach at Baylor, Mike Ford, still calls it the best Bromell race he’s seen in person. The Olympics were five months away.

In Bromell’s first top-level meet of the spring, he led a 200m in Rome coming off the turn. Then he slowed down considerably and finished seventh.

Three days later, he felt left heel pain while warming up at a Diamond League meet in Birmingham, Great Britain. He withdrew and flew back to Texas.

An X-ray revealed a bone spur growing near his Achilles. The Olympic Trials were in four weeks. They had to modify training and hope to minimize the pain, putting off potential surgery until after Rio.

Bromell made the Olympic team, placing second at Trials to Gatlin in 9.84 seconds. He trained for Rio in a pool and on an anti-gravity treadmill. When he sprinted, it was often on grass and not in spikes.

Ford felt it was a victory that Bromell even qualified for the Olympic final, where he finished last in 10.06 seconds.

“I wasn’t going to run,” Bromell said. “I was telling myself that I was just in too much pain.

“I ended it with a clear heart knowing that even though I wasn’t able to produce what I knew I could, because of the circumstance, I still was able to witness and be a part of something that a lot of people may never get the opportunity to do.”

Five nights later, Bromell lined up against Bolt for the anchor leg of the 4x100m relay. He felt no pain.

As Tyson Gay neared with the baton, a dashing Bromell turned his head back for a moment to ensure the handoff. Bolt, in the adjacent lane, opened a slight lead and extended it down the straightaway.

Bromell, in dipping to try to edge Japan’s Asuka Cambridge for silver, stumbled and tumbled on the blue track. As Bolt made the final decelerating pose of his Olympic career, Bromell’s loose orange baton flew in the background.

As Bromell tried to catch himself hitting the ground, the heel pain returned. He couldn’t walk off the track. Officials brought out a wheelchair. Bromell departed believing his anchor secured the bronze medal.

Minutes later, he left a medical room with crutches and was told the team was disqualified. Mike Rodgers and Justin Gatlin exchanged the baton out of the zone.

“I gave everything that I could, almost just throwing myself just to try to get the medal, then it was just like, dang, we got DQed,” Bromell said. “I just couldn’t win in the situation. I got hurt going into the Olympics, then I couldn’t really perform how I wanted to in the 100m and then this. I’m taking an L after L after L right now.”

He underwent the post-Olympic surgery. Bromell was in a boot for two months. He said he did no rehab exercises for six months, per doctor’s instructions. Scar tissue built up. He went 10 months between races and, in his return, was eliminated in the first round at the 2017 USATF Outdoor Championships. Bromell didn’t feel right and had the heel re-examined.

I don’t see how you can run 10.2, a new doctor told him. Your tendon should have torn off the bone.

Bromell underwent another surgery and started over again. This time, he went two years between races. On July 6, 2019, Bromell took a misstep about 70 meters into a 100m heat in Montverde and eased up, clocking 10.54 seconds.

Ford feared it was the Achilles, but Bromell taped up the foot and lined up for his final. Halfway through that race, he blew an adductor muscle in his upper leg. Bromell returned to his hotel and spoke with Ford.

“I thought he may quit,” said Ford, who had coached Bromell for nearly four years.

Bromell stayed in Florida to consider his next move. Ford flew back to Texas. They decided a change was best. Bromell spoke with Reider, who developed a knack for helping athletes return from leg injuries.

Christian Taylor, the 2012 Olympic triple jump champion, switched takeoff legs after knee pain and repeated as gold medalist in Rio. De Grasse joined Reider’s group in November 2018 after a pair of season-ending right hamstring injuries. In 2019, the Canadian earned 100m bronze and 200m silver at the world championships.

“[Bromell’s] expectations were just to be like he was before, at some point,” Reider said. “The expectations for me were just to get him to a point where we could see if we could actually train. When we got in, there were some basic functions he couldn’t do.”

Bromell did what Reider called rudimentary strength and conditioning exercises those first months. He began sprinting in earnest in March.

That Independence Day race — the 10.04 — was his first in four years without pain, Reider said. Neither Ford nor Reider was surprised by that time or the 9.90 on July 24.

“We made some steps to be able to be an athlete and not a rehab project,” Reider said. “I think he can run faster than he’s ever run.”

Bromell lives by himself in Jacksonville. He has other passions, notably photography.

He sees a counselor regularly after a difficult stretch of years. That’s brought him out of what he called “situations I probably shouldn’t have been in.” He plans to reveal specifics later.

“I stopped doing a lot of things in my life that was destroying me,” he said. “I stopped having pain and hurt in my heart and having it consume me. … I started reading my Bible more. I started reading books more. A lot of things that helped me evolve as a human. To have more peace, live properly and not destroy myself from within.”

Bromell doesn’t know where his 2015 or 2016 World Championships medals are. He doesn’t assign as much value to them as he does three-page essays that he received from college fund applicants in 2018. He promised $10,000 each to five students, choosing the recipients based on their submitted life stories.

“There’s people out here that were literally writing in their essays, Tray, your fighting, your drive to not give up helped me to not commit suicide tomorrow,” Bromell said. “Imagine reading something like that. Who would’ve thought this little kid from south side St. Pete could have an impact just by running 100 meters. That’s my gold medal.”

MORE: Usain Bolt would unretire if one man called

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Brian Orser reveals Hanyu’s, Medvedeva’s, and Brown’s Grand Prix plans

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Over the past decade, the Toronto club where Brian Orser coached South Korea’s Yuna Kim to the 2010 Olympic title has become such an attraction for top figure skaters from around the globe that it could add a word to a name that already is a mouthful.

You could call it the Toronto International Cricket Skating and Curling Club.

But its reach now is limited by the deadly virus pandemic that has effectively frozen out the elite athletes from Japan, Russia, South Korea and Poland who train at the Cricket Club.

That situation won’t change quickly, even with the International Skating Union having announced Monday its plans to proceed with a live format for the international Grand Prix Series. This fall, it will become a series of six essentially domestic competitions scheduled to begin with Skate America Oct. 23-25 in Las Vegas.

If they take place.

“As soon as the skaters can come back, it will be full steam ahead… to where, we don’t know,” Orser said via telephone Wednesday.

Two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu remains in Japan. Two-time world champion Yevgenia Medvedeva is in Russia, four-time national champion Cha Jun-Hwan in South Korea, and two-time national champion Yekaterina Kurakova in Poland.

“We would like for them all to come back, but with the Canadian travel restrictions in place until at least Aug. 21, we can’t guarantee approval to get them in, and they would have a 14-day quarantine here if they do get in,” Tracy Wilson, who coaches with Orser, said via telephone Wednesday. “Right now, they are all training at home, and that’s OK.

“The situation is different for each one. The Japanese federation may need Yuzu to do the Grand Prix in Japan, and at this point he would face quarantine entering Canada and returning to Japan.

“For Yevgenia, as soon as she does the Russian test skates (scheduled for early September), we will re-evaluate her situation.”

Orser said he has been doing three video coaching sessions a week with Medvedeva, with whom he is in his third season as coach. Medvedeva, who left Russia for Canada after winning a silver medal at the 2018 Olympics, also is currently getting help from coach Elena Buyanova at the CSKA rink in Moscow.

“She (Medvedeva) looks way ahead of where she was at this point last year,” Orser said.

MORE: Looking back at Yuna Kim’s 10-year gold medal anniversary

Orser also has been having live remote sessions with Cha and Kurakova, and they are also sending videos to him. The only skater he has not seen is Hanyu.

“That’s normal when he is back in Japan,” Orser said. “I wasn’t expecting anything.”

How long Hanyu stays in Japan may depend on travel restrictions being loosened in both his homeland and Canada.

“I would like to get them all back, and they need to come back,” Orser said. “But facing a double quarantine is not in anyone’s best interest.”

Only two of the Cricket Club’s international skaters, 2014 Olympian Jason Brown of suburban Chicago and Yi Zhu of Los Angeles (who represents China), have come back to Toronto after leaving in late winter.

It took Brown two tries to get back across the border because of issues with the paperwork necessary for Canada to consider it essential he be allowed to enter. Orser and Wilson want to be sure any skaters coming from Asia and Europe are admitted on the first try.

From April to July, until skaters could get back on the ice in their various homelands, Brown led Thursday off-ice fitness classes via Zoom, with Medvedeva, Cha and Kurakova taking part.

“It was such a fun way to stay connected and still ‘train’ together while we were oceans apart,” Brown said in a Wednesday text message.

Orser and Wilson will recommend that all the foreign skaters training at the Cricket Club try to compete at Skate Canada, scheduled the last weekend of October at a 9,500-seat arena in Ottawa. Wilson thought if the event cannot have spectators, it might be moved to a smaller facility, possibly in a different city.

“All plans are in the early stages,” Skate Canada spokesperson Emma Bowie said in an email.

Grand Prix assignments have not yet been made.

Whether Brown picks Skate Canada over Skate America – if he gets a choice – could depend on when (and if) the Canadian government shortens quarantine periods for travelers from the United States.

“I know that we are in such unprecedented and uncertain times, so I love seeing the ISU being creative and trying to find a way to hold skating events this year,” Brown wrote. “While a lot can happen before October, if it’s safe to do so, I’ll be ready and eager to take part in any events that I can.”

The ISU said it wants to have the Grand Prix Final in Beijing, whether it takes place on its original dates (Dec. 10-13) or early in 2021. The competition is to be used as a test event of the skating venue for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

There are no details yet on qualification for the final, which usually is determined by points for placements at the six “regular season” events of the series, held in the U.S., Canada, China, France, Russia and Japan. The top six in each of the sport’s four disciplines make the Final.

In the past, the highest-ranked skaters could compete in up to two Grand Prix events, but ISU Vice-President Alexander Lakernik of Russia said in a Tuesday email that everyone would be limited to one event this year.

Because the Final presumably would have much more of an international field than the six other events, staging it is infinitely more problematic because of travel involved.

“We want what’s best for the sport,” Wilson said. “We have to get these kids out there doing programs, to get them on TV. [Note: An NBC spokesman said the network would, as planned, provide coverage of the Grand Prix, with details forthcoming.] In terms of competition, we’re up for anything.

“For me, though, with all the restrictions, there is no way they will be able to run a fair qualification for the Grand Prix Final. You’ve got to reinvent yourself and make it something else – if you are able to have it at all.”

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

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